It's upon us: the rite of spring cleaning. Time to break out the cleaning supplies and get ready for a headache. Headache? Maybe so.
What you may not realize is that you could be stocking hazardous materials in your home -- up to 10 gallons' worth. Toxic chemicals linked with a variety of health problems are found in many common household cleaning supplies and materials, from glass cleaner to paint.
While few of us enjoy cleaning, there's no reason to risk our health in the name of cleanliness. Making simple, green changes to your spring-cleaning habits can make big differences to your health, the health of the planet and your wallet.
The first tip on our list: a small expenditure with a potentially big price.
Toss the Chemical Air Fresheners
Spring is here and it makes us want to throw open the windows and breathe in the scent of fresh-cut grass. Unfortunately, all winter inside our homes we breathed in chemicals that have been linked to developmental and sex-hormone abnormalities as well as cancer.
The culprit? Air fresheners. They're used in about 75 percent of U.S. homes, to the tune of $2 billion a year.
This spring, consider tossing the chemicals and trying natural fresheners like baking soda or essential oils. Trade in the flowery-scented aerosols and freshen the air in your home with cut flowers.
Or, just simply open the windows.
American families throw away almost 2,500 pounds of paper every year, and if you're like most of us it's mostly made up of junk mail. End the flow of bulk mail, direct marketing, credit card solicitations, catalogs and even unwanted phone books by opting out -- a quick search online will bring up sites to help.
Additionally, converting your home office to a paperless office will reduce the annual paper pounds. Do you really need to print out that email? And with one more step, signing up for paperless billing, you'll not only save paper but time spent filing.
Clean Up Your Dirty Laundry Habits
With spring cleaning comes laundry, lots of laundry. Before you start a load, think about this: Each load of laundry done in a top-loading washing machine uses about 40 gallons of water -- and a typical dryer sucks up about five kilowatts of electricity each hour it runs.
One simple step to dealing with dirty laundry is to install a clothesline, either in your basement or backyard. Some clothing, such as jeans, and other laundered items don't need to be washed with each wear or use and can be aired out and used again. When you do wash, wash on the cold cycle and air-dry on your newly installed clothesline.
Be Smart about Water
If you're a typical American, you use about 100 gallons of water every day. The thirstiest water consumer in your house is the toilet, followed by the shower or bath. There are a few easy tricks to reduce your water consumption and reduce your carbon footprint.
To tame the toilet, use a toilet dam. A toilet dam prevents as much as 20 percent of the water in the tank from flushing down the drain. Although you can buy them in stores, reusing a plastic bottle does the trick.
Taking shorter showers is an obvious way to reduce your water consumption, but if you go one more step and install a low-flow showerhead, you stand to use 50-70 percent less water while you lather.
And finally, turn off the water as you brush your teeth. How easy is that?
End Energy Leaks
Most of us keep our appliances plugged in all the time. Our cell phone chargers, TVs and computers are all ready and waiting for us to need them. While they wait, they're in standby mode, and standby mode is not the same as off. During standby mode electronic devices leak energy.
These leaks -- also known as vampire energy because of the slow suck of electricity from your home -- claim about 4 percent of electricity in the U.S, equal to about 100 million tons of oil.
Bottom line: Put a stake in vampire energy by unplugging devices when you're not using them: Make it simple and buy a few power strips.
Spruce with Eco-Friendly Paint
Spring weather may make you think about outdoor allergies, but what are you breathing inside your house? Indoor air pollution contributes to respiratory illnesses, headaches, nausea and cancer.
What's the cause?
Well, the paint in your house may be one of the big culprits. Household paint contains thousands of chemicals, 300 known to be toxic. Some of the most hazardous are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and release toxins into the air for as many as six years after application.
What can you do when your walls need a spruce? Choose low-VOC paint. Low-VOC paints are water-based and because they aren't made with toxins they don't smell -- and chances are they're available in your color palette.
Wondering what to do with the mismatched socks you've accumulated, or your old college t-shirts? Turn them into rags for cleaning and dusting. In 2004 Americans threw away 83,000 tons of disposable towels.
You know what else weighs 83,000 tons? A Disney Cruise Ship.
Scrubbing your shower with an old T-shirt means you keep both the shirt and the disposable wipes out of the landfill. Win-win.
As you declutter and clean for spring, look around for other ways to stretch your resources. Use old newspapers to clean the windows. Replace air conditioning and furnace filters with washable alternatives. Not everything has a second life, but take a second look before disposing of it.
Change Your Lighting
Conserve energy and help the planet with a twist of your wrist: replace incandescent light bulbs in your home with compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs).
CFLs are more energy efficient -- they use two-thirds less energy than incandescent bulbs and last 8-12 times longer. If you swap only one bulb you'll save enough energy to light more than 2.5 million homes in the U.S. for one year. Changing to CFLs saves money, too. That one CFL bulb can cut up to about $30 from your home's energy bill during its lifetime.
And if you install motion sensors on infrequently used lights, such as in hallways or on the porch, you'll never forget to turn off the lights again.
Make Your Own Cleaning Products
While many of us choose the most powerful chemical cleaner on the market to make our mildew disappear, ingredients such as plain soap, water, vinegar, baking soda, salt and lemon juice have been proven just as effective, and safer for you and the environment.
Chemicals linked to eye irritation, headaches, respiratory problems, birth defects, infertility and cancer are found in many cleaning supplies -- in fact ethylene glycol butyl ether is on California's list of toxic air contaminants.
Take this spring cleaning time to reduce your indoor air pollution. Mixing a little salt with vinegar and water, for example, is an eco-friendly way to clean your kitchen counters.
No time to mix your own? Switch to eco-friendly cleaning supplies - it's a great first step.
Recycle, Recycle, Recycle
One of the joys of spring cleaning is getting rid of stuff. Boxes of it. Don't just toss all those boxes into the trash, sort them: recycle, donate, yard sale and trash.
If you don't already recycle it's easy to start with the basics: your town likely has recycling programs for newspapers and magazines, glass and many plastics. Old electronics such as old cell phones, VCRs or computers can be recycled, usually through retailer recycling programs.
Also, just because you no longer wear last season's clothing or have a need for other used household items doesn't mean someone else wouldn't love to have them. Donate to your local Goodwill or Salvation Army or hold a yard sale.
The little that's left over? That's trash.